SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Top-ranked Jon Rahm starred at Arizona State and lives in the Valley of the Sun. He's still trying to put it all together in the WM Phoenix Open.
“It’s always a week I look forward to,” Rahm said Wednesday after playing nine holes in the pro-am with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “I have a lot of support this week. It’s a home week. It’s a special event, right? It’s an event unlike any other.”
Rahm had his best finish on TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course — about three miles west of his Silverleaf home — while still in college, tying for fifth in 2015. In five starts as a pro, the Spaniard's best finish is a tie for ninth in 2020 and his worst a tie for 16th in 2017.
“You’re used to playing desert golf, and I think the altitude, just living here, I’m used to how far the ball goes, which can be a challenge for some people, but it’s hard to get used to how firm and fast the greens are,” Rahm said. “I play at Silverleaf a lot. The greens are just as fast, but they’re definitely not as firm. That’s something you can only accomplish here.”
The tournament is a week later than usual so it can coincide with the Super Bowl, also moved back a week with an extra game on the NFL schedule. The temperature is expected to be in the low 80s all four days.
“I love this golf course, man,” defending champion Brooks Koepka said. “It suits me down to the ground. I think you see a lot of guys that hit it long and fade it, play well here. ... It’s a bomber’s paradise. If you can put the ball in play, you can make some good scores.”
Koepka won a year ago when attendance was limited to 5,000 a day because because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fans are back in force this year.
“You hit a bad shot, they’re going to get on you,” said Koepka, also the 2015 winner. “Kind of refocuses you. I enjoy that atmosphere you get in other sports, football, where it’s a little rowdy, basketball where they were chirping you, whatever. I like that.”
The field features six of the top 10 players in the world and 28 of the top 50. No. 3 Viktor Hovland is playing along with No. 4 Patrick Cantlay, the FedEx Cup champion making his tournament debut, and No. 7 Justin Thomas, No. 8 Xander Schauffele and No. 10 Hideki Matsuyama.
Hovland won his third PGA Tour title in November at Mayakoba and took the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic two weeks ago. The Norwegian star is making his second appearance in the event.
“It's desert golf, not really a lot of wind,” Hovland said. “You’d think it would be pretty easy, but just with how the greens are so firm and fast, it’s hard to get real close to the pins. I think ball-striking is going to be very important.”
Matsuyama is playing for the first time since winning the Sony Open last month in Hawaii. The Masters champion won in Scottsdale in 2016 and 2017.
Rahm took a long break after the Ryder Cup, returning last month to finish second in the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He's coming off a third-place tie two weeks ago at Torrey Pines, the site of his U.S. Open victory last summer.
“I think one of the best decisions I have made in my life was taking those 2 1/2 months off at the end of the year,” Rahm said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something I do more often.”
He was surprised how nervous Rodgers was during the pro-am.
“It’s just funny to see, somebody who is out there, who is MVP, who is one of the best quarterbacks of all time be that nervous,” Rahm said.
DIVOTS: Charles Howell III is making his 600th PGA Tour start. “I have gray hair to prove every one of those starts,” the 42-year-old Howell said. ... Tom Hoge is in the field after winning his first tour title Sunday at Pebble Beach. ... Arizona State freshman Preston Summerhays received a sponsor exemption.
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